.plan Files and Tracking & Thinking About Personal Goals

For working on some of my personal projects that have longer timelines than “install this tool on my Mac”, I’ve been struggling with how to track and report on progress. Things, which I love, isn’t good for these. These efforts aren’t really something that can be broken down to task levels. A good example is learning about security tools. I have a task in Things to remind me to install a tool on my Air. But tracking progress, notes, and high-level tasks I need something else. The same for working on coming up with a side-hustle and secondary revenue streams.

I was thinking of how John Carmack of id software used to maintain .plan files. It used the finger protocol as a type of blogging engine, but I liked the simple, text-based structure. As I was thinking about tracking some of my personal stuff, I debated between a separate Ulysses sheet, or using Apple Notes, or just Day One Journaling. I ruled against these because I don’t want it to be in my face. I didn’t want a constant reminder that I hadn’t gotten to those projects because work, school, and life got in the way. I also want to keep it private. I did want the ability to edit the file on Mac or iOS, so that sort of limited the app I would use.

So, I decided on keeping a sort of .plan file in Byword. It’s a simple text file. It’s out of the way since it’s not an app I use a lot. It’s just one file now named “plan” and I will be keeping some notes and goals over time there. Maybe it’s close to bullet journal, but I just wanted a separate way to track a lot of this.

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iPad Life: A Post-iPad-Only Life and Rendering Unto Caesar

I have largely abandoned the idea that I can go iPad-only. While I never actually thought it would work for me, and admire people like Matt Gemmell who can, I have come to the grudging realization I cannot join their ranks.

In the parlance of many failed relationships, it’s not the iPad; it is me.

When the focus of my non-day job stuff was writing and drawing, the iPad was perfect for that. Even architectural drawings, while I can’t do full AutoCAD on the iPad, I could still draw buildings and have some fun with that. Schoolwork was a little more challenging where I’d run into some limitations with Word, I could still get around them on the iPad. It was when my career path diverted into information security the wheels fell off the iPad bus. There are some discovery and recon tasks I can do on the iPad, but the tools I use require access to the Unix parts of macOS I don’t ever expect iOS to allow.

I wrote earlier about how I carry too much crap with me and did some data analysis on how I use my mobile devices. While the numbers clearly point towards the iPad as my primary mobile device, they don’t tell all the story. There is a line from the Bible I like which is Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s… and a variation of this applies here. While I cannot go iPad-only, the iPad is still pretty much my primary mobile device. Unless I really need a program only available on the Mac, I only bring my iPad with me. I’m writing this post now at lunch at work on my iPad. I bring the iPad to to take notes, read materials, write, and draw. The reasons I outlined in A Year of Using the iPad as a Laptop Replacement for using the iPad as my primary mobile device still apply. But, I felt like my quest to either go Mac-only or iPad-only were causing me to focus on the negatives of each system, rather than the positives. By accepting I need each device in my life freed up a lot of mental energy. I love writing and drawing on my iPad. I love using Unix tools on my MacBook Pro. If that means I leave the house with both of them in my bag some days, well, so be it.

The “I Carry Too Much Crap” Edition

From Ben Brooks:

My rule here is very simple: take a phone and one other device. Unless you have a major reason why you need three devices, take only two. For me the second device is my iPad Pro, and before that it was my MacBook. If you need a Mac, take a Mac and use your phone for anything else. But decide if you even need that second device — I take mine strictly because if I can squeeze in writing time, it is worth having the iPad Pro. But I could do it all with my iPhone if I wanted

I’ve been in a weird state where I’m straddling a few tech lines and as a result I’m leaving the house frequently with both my iPad Pro and my MacBook Pro. The short version of a long story is I can’t really go iPad-only, but, I also can’t really go MacBook-only at the same time. My primary, non-day job, yet productive, tasks are: writing, drawing, photo editing, and security analysis. I’m oversimplifying here, but the iPad is best at drawing and the MacBook is the only platform I can do security analysis with. The other tasks I can do close to equally as well on either platform.

Ben’s post helped illustrate a growing frustration I have with my daily load-out: I routinely leave the house with my iPhone, MacBook Pro, and iPad Pro. That is one device too many. I’ve made my peace with the fact that I need a powerful Mac, an iPad Pro, and an iPhone as part of my technological setup. What I struggle with is why I feel I need to bring both the iPad and MacBook Pro with me. Core apps I use (Ulysses, OmniGraffle, Affinity Photo) are reasonably feature complete between iOS and macOS1. The iPad-only apps are Procreate for drawing, and the macOS-only apps are my security toolsets.

The practical answer is to just go back to a MacBook Pro. It’s a more flexible platform and the walls I hit are fewer than on iOS. Drawing is the least-performed of my activities. Even today I ran into a weird iOS limitation. I needed to export a multiple-canvas Omnigraffle document to png files. On the Mac, there is a checkbox to export the entire document. On the iPad, no such checkbox exists. [UPDATE: I have since learned there is a workaround] Practicality is not the only driver, though. I really like using the iPad Pro. Typing on the Smart Keyboard is a dream and I love the portability of the device. As with creative work, security work when away from my home is also a rarity.

Since I can’t decide, and impulse and emotions aren’t good points to base decisions on, I’m falling back on my analyst mindset. I created a spreadsheet where I will record on a high-level my device usage. Three columns: Date, iPad, MacBook. The value will be Date (obviously) and for each device row I am using a 4-point grade: 0, did not use the device; 1, used the device lightly; 2, used the device heavily; 3, did something I can only perform on that device. As an aside, this is only for when I leave the house. I don’t care too much right now about my day-to-day usage at home. I will also take care and not cheat the data. If I brought my MacBook, have it on the desk, and the thing I want to do can be done on either the Mac or iPad, unless necessary I won’t drag out the iPad just to give it a checkbox for the day.

  1. There are edge cases on things like some filters for Affinity Photo, but for the purpose of this article we can call them feature-compatible and not get too far down in the weeds.

Sacred Places of Work

I wanted to move game playing out of my home office and transform the area into a space where I would just focus on work stuff. Paint my miniatures, write, draw, work on my trains, or learn to program. Have something to show for my time. So, I bought a PS4, put it in the family room, and moved the Alienware off my desk. All that remained was the iPad, MacBook Pro, and a sacred place of work.

My home office is amazing. We had it painted recently, there isn’t much in the way of decorations. I look out at 57 acres of woods, and several times a week see the local wildlife in the back yard. I have two work surfaces: a large desk that is the 3rd generation in my family; and an IKEA dining table that I use for painting my miniatures and working on my trains. On the desk is my MacBook Pro, the 27” monitor hooked up to my Alienware Alpha, and the related chargers and cables.

The first paragraph was written earlier this year. The second one a week or so ago. An astute reader will notice in the first paragraph the Alienware was off the desk, and in the second paragraph it came back. The problem with bad habits left unchecked they come back like weeds. The painting happened in early June. The Alienware was put away when I got the PS4 in December 2016. By September, it had crept back on my desk like a pile of kudzu. I’m looking at the 27”monitor right now and thinking: that right there is a big bucket of fail. The foundation of bad habits is lies and false promises you make to yourself. I just put that there to have the game on. I want a big screen to watch the drawing tutorials on. It’s out of the way and you hardly notice it.

I used to follow the Minimalists a lot (my full feelings on them is a future article), but one of their mantras is if you lead a distraction-free lifestyle free of things like video games, the TV, the internet, and cell phones you will miraculously find yourself an amazingly productive person.

Bullshit. Hard work may pay off tomorrow, but procrastination pays off today. If I feel like writing and drawing, I will. If I don’t, I won’t. The beauty of personal side projects is there are no deadlines. The curse of side projects is there are no deadlines.

Instead of Minimalism, I instead try and follow simplifying and the essentials. Minimalism feels like paring down too far. A minimalist may have only one Lightning charger, but I have five: one at my desk, one by my bed, one in my car, one at my desk, and in my bag is a set of MacBook and Lightning chargers. It’s not minimal, but it is simpler. Everywhere I need a charger there is one. Because it really sucks when you run out of juice someplace and realize you left the charger the last place you were at.

Likewise, my iPhone, iPad, and MacBook are essential. The Alienware and the 27” monitor are not and will be removed. The rest of the desk will be clean, simple, and essential.

The Mac

Lost in all this shuffle over me going iPad-primary is that I still love the Mac. There is a lot of dogma and rigidness from the iPad-only crowd regarding the Mac and I don’t share it. Steve Jobs famously said that (paraphrasing) that PCs are trucks and iOS devices are cars.

I still drive a truck. Both a physical version and electronic.

My 11″ MacBook Air doesn’t get used on a daily basis anymore, but it’s still one of my favorite devices of all time. There was a brief period of time recently where I regretted getting it and not a MacBook Pro 13″. I missed it because I really couldn’t play games on it, but I realized that playing games on my Mac didn’t add much value to my life. After that epiphany I felt much more comfortable about the purchase. I do wish it had a retina screen, so when it comes time to upgrade it I will likely get the baseline MacBook 12″

There are some things I do that I either flat out can’t do on iOS (like de-DRM my Kindle collection for archiving) or are a gigantic pain in the ass on iOS (like copying a ton of PDFs from iCloud to OneDrive. Plus there is iOS development which I want to I get into.1

iOS still has enough roadblocks for it to replace my MacBook completely. I expect I will still need some form of Mac for the next three years, at least.

When I upgrade my beloved Air at some point, I’m not a traitor to the iOS-primary cause, but simply a realist who believes in the right tool for the job.

  1. My gut feeling is by WWDC 2018 some type of native development environment for iOS apps will be available on iOS.

Apple and organizational change

There’s one thing about Apple that has been in the back of my mind since WWDC: Apple has done a fantastic job at organizational change in the last year or so. Every organization I’ve worked at has handled change poorly. Either people refuse to accept the change, or the leaders don’t change enough, or, sometimes they change too much.

It’s pretty much a given: Large organizations handle large changes poorly. Look at Blackberry and Microsoft. Both of these companies saw their markets were being disrupted, but still did a piss-poor job at reacting to it.

Apple, on the other hand, is a market leader and on the outside had little need to change how they did things. Yet they did, in some key ways.

Opening up the betas

Up until earlier this year, it was laughable that Apple would ever open up the OS X betas. Yet, starting with a dot release for Mavericks they opened up the betas. Even now, there is a public beta for their new OS, Yosemite. Hopefully, this will clear up some issues like the whole Gmail Mavericks issue.

That said, I don’t think Apple will open up the iOS betas. There are too many risks for key systems. Apple had enough problems with a small subset of users having problems with a failed 8.0.1 update. Imagine if a bad beta got out for an OS Apple isn’t actively supporting.

Opening up iOS

I don’t’ know if iOS 8 extensions and keyboards would have happened if Jobs and Forestall were still with Apple. Part of me can see it happening if Jobs were still alive (he did accept that sometimes Apple needed to change). If Forestall still stayed on after Jobs died, I doubt it.

At WWDC, it was announced that now 3rd party keyboards would be available for iOS, and now apps can talk to each other in a more logical manner without the need for some crazy workarounds.

Gizmodo is off the shit list

Gizmodo got an invite to the September 9 event. This is the same organization that got their hands on a stolen iPhone and told Jobs to shove it. I thought the odds were better I would get an invite to an Apple event before Gizmodo would. Lo and behold, both Gizmodo and Brian Lam got invites. Even with Jobs and Cotton gone, I thought someone at Apple would have a long enough memory to still stick it to them.

Final thoughts

I look at some of the changes other organizations have tried to make and seen how they have failed first hand. That so far, this hasn’t blown up in Apple’s face is remarkable. So far, a few bugs in iOS have given them egg on their face.

Egg is far easier to clean up than shit, though.

Apple does the unexpected; opens OS X betas to everyone

I will admit, I did not see this one coming. Apple announced on April 22, 2014 that they are now allowing anyone with an Apple ID, and is 18 years of older, to participate in their beta program. Previously, this required an Apple Developer Account ($99/year). Now, it’s free, as in beer.

I think this is a great idea. Personally, I’ve been in the iOS and OS X developer programs solely for research. As a freelancer specializing in Apple products, I needed to be comfortable with the new OSs before launch to write about the new features. Now, at least, I don’t have to worry about the OS X program.

When I reached out to Apple PR about their motives, they declined to comment. My uneducated guess is that Apple needed more feedback on beta releases than they were getting from the developer pool. I know that the betas leading up to a GM get a lot of testing from developers, but I don’t know about the dot relases. This could also be a general security issue since betas for the new versions of OS X usually hit the torrent sites. That’s not a good way for people to get their hands on operating systems.

How it works is pretty straightforward. You sign up and download a DMG file which has a MavericksBetaAccessUtility.pkg file in it. Installing this allows he prerelease iTunes 11.1.6 and OS X 10.9.3 betas to be downloaded from the Mac App Store. What is not explicitly stated is whether this will still be in place when the beta for OS X 10.10 starts this summer. There is an FAQ here, but it’s a little vague on how forthcoming betas will be handled. I think that 10.10 will be included. At least, I hope it is. A concern, however, is that the DMG and the PKG file say “Mavericks” and not “OS X”. So, it’s possible this is only for Mavericks. We will see in two months.

My next question is whether this will be available on iOS. I am split on this, and the 51% of me thinks it will not be. OS X has a much smaller install base than iOS. It’s also easier to recover your Mac from a bad beta than your iPhone. Also, you download the files for iOS betas from the developer page; not the iOS App Store.[1] Were Apple to introduce free iOS betas, they would include it in the free developer accounts. You’d have to pay to use iTunes Connect. This would also eliminate the selling of device provisions that generally drive Apple nuts.


  1. Technically, you also do this for the OS X betas, but once you’ve entered in a reclamation code, the beta software appears in the App Store.  ↩